It was only a matter of time before the coaching spotlight shone on the Cincinnati Bengals' coaching staff once again. The organization has already sent two assistants onto head coaching gigs (Jay Gruden, Mike Zimmer) recently and now Hue Jackson's candidacy is gaining steam.
I think the best way to evaluate Jackson is to work through his previous jobs chronologically.
Jackson's Early NFL Years
Jackson has had three previous jobs as an offensive coordinator. Two of them are nothing to brag about. In 2003, after spending two seasons as a RBs coach in Washington, Steve Spurrier gave Jackson his first NFL OC position. After that season the whole staff was fired.
Before taking his second OC position, Hue Jackson started to show his skills as a position coach - a trend we will see develop as his career's story is told. He would spend the next three seasons in Cincinnati as the receivers coach. While there Jackson helped the trio of Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry become a consistent source of yardage in the Bengals' passing offense. Johnson posted three straight 1,000+ yard seasons in Jackson's three seasons, while Houshmandzadeh would go for 900+ twice before breaking 1,000.
Chad Johnson was well on his way to a stellar NFL career before Jackson became the Bengals' receivers coach. TJ Houshmandzadeh is a different story. Jackson's first season in Cincinnati also coincided with the start of Houshmandzadeh's success. The receiver spent the year prior out with an injury and before that posted two seasons of 228 and 492 yards. Now, it would clearly be wrong to attribute all of this success to Jackson, but writing it off as a coincidence isn't accurate either.
In 2007, Jackson accepted a position to be Bobby Petrino's offensive coordinator. Petrino left the team after 13 games and again the whole staff was changed after just one season.
Jackson didn't have to wait long to find success though, and once again it was as a position coach. He became the QB coach for the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, tasked with preparing the rookie Joe Flacco to start in the tough AFC North. Jackson's Baltimore stop shouldn't be overlooked. This a clear example where Jackson worked with a young quarterback at the start of their career. Once again the success together shouldn't be considered coincidence.
The Titans are banking on Marcus Mariota becoming a superstar, and everything they do should be in his best interests right now. Hiring a coach who has had success with young quarterbacks would have to be considered a smart move.
The Oakland Experience
After two years in Baltimore, Jackson left the Ravens to become the offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders.
Hue Jackson was only the offensive coordinator there for one season before Tom Cable was fired and Jackson himself was moved up to head coach.
Here are the offensive rankings for a three-year snapshot of the Raiders.
|2009/HC Cable||2010/HC Cable/OC Jackson||2011/HC Jackson/OC Saunders|
Now not all of the credit here can go to Jackson. Cable and Al Saunders certainly deserve to share in some of the praise. As well, some of this improvement was natural once you factor in quarterbacks. In 2009 Cable had JaMarcus Russell. Improving on the offensive numbers with a different quarterback was going to be an easy task. However, this sort of improvement was a substantial jump and came with two mediocre quarterbacks. Jason Campbell started 12 games while Bruce Gradkowski got the nod in the other four. Finally in 2011 Jackson acquired Carson Palmer for nine games, while Campbell (6) and Kyle Boller (1) received starts as well.
After finishing the season 8-8, Mark Davis fired him. Since 2003, the 2010 and 2011 seasons remain the only two times the Raiders finished with more than five wins (Cable and Jackson both went 8-8). Worth noting is that Jackson's successor, Dennis Allen, went 4-12 despite having Carson Palmer appear in 15 games that year.
Jackson's experience in Oakland is a huge positive when considering him for the Tennessee position. Once again he demonstrated his ability to craft a productive offense, this time with two different quarterbacks. Perhaps most importantly though, Jackson proved that he could succeed as a head coach in a dysfunctional organization. The Titans are a mess right now. They have an interim CEO and head coach, and likely a general manager working on borrowed time. They also have several ownership questions, including who will be in charge long term. Finding success in Oakland is an impressive feat.
After his firing, Jackson found a home once again in Cincinnati, working his way from secondary coach to running backs coach and then finally to offensive coordinator, a position he's held for the past two seasons. He's now in charge of one of the league's best offenses.
A Closer Look at the Cincinnati Offense
Let's start with the rankings. The Bengals' offense right now ranks 3rd in pts/game, 6th in yards/game, 13th in rush yards/game, and 7th in pass yards/game.
What is more impressive is how the team is putting up those stats. Jackson shows a tremendous understanding of his players and their strengths. For example, he uses his RB rotation to perfection. Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard split carries in the backfield. Bernard is used often as the 'space player' in the rotation, with plays designed to put him in the open field with room to juke defenders.
Jackson has done the same with the receivers. AJ Green was a superstar nearly from his first start in the league. Its the other receivers that seem to be developing under Hue Jackson. Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu have become consistent threats. Oh, and tight end Tyler Eifert also happens to be one of the best in the league right now.
Andy Dalton's development is being linked with Jackson's tutelage as well. His completion and TD percentages are the highest of his career. On the other side of the spectrum, his INT percentage is the lowest of his career. Jackson has apparently given Dalton more say in the offense, and has urged him to take charge more often. The results right now are undoubtedly positive.
The offense he's using in Cincinnati would seem to be an ideal fit for Tennessee and Marcus Mariota. Dalton's stats are improved because the offense is designed perfectly for easy routes. Dalton's strengths have always been his accuracy, particularly in the short and intermediate pass game. Jackson's offense is accentuating those strengths. Marcus Mariota also happens to excel with the short pass game. In Jackson's offense Mariota could experience success early and often in his second season.
Let's take a look at a couple of examples of Jackson's offense up against the Browns:
Play designed on a quick read. Dalton can hand off, throw a wide screen to Sanu below, or hit Eifert. https://t.co/YQWEGj8ASL— Daniel R (@DanielR_MCM) November 7, 2015
Inside slant with Green in the slot. Saw DGB do this in college often. Easy throw for Dalton. https://t.co/18NnHNdE8S— Daniel R (@DanielR_MCM) November 7, 2015
This one is all Dalton. Relies on timing + anticipation to hit Green out of his break. Ideal for Mariota, h... https://t.co/FZ0RZjdlvT— Daniel R (@DanielR_MCM) November 7, 2015
Marvin Jones cuts in front of the LB for an easy completion. https://t.co/05MUFllrAq— Daniel R (@DanielR_MCM) November 7, 2015
Too easy. Get the ball to Jones, let him do the work. https://t.co/8rEcZW3JVJ— Daniel R (@DanielR_MCM) November 7, 2015
Here's what SI's Doug Farrar had to say about the Jackson and the Cincy offense:
There are few play designers in the league more adept at maximizing what he had on the field than Jackson, and he runs a dizzying array of stuff at every opponent the Bengals face, from wide line formations to package plays to straight-up power football. It's all intended to give his quarterback a clearer picture of the field and to create more opportunities for his playmakers, and any team with an offense currently stuck in the mud would do well to add Jackson to their interview lists if they're looking for a replacement at that position.
The Question Marks
Would he want personnel control?
After his season in Oakland, Hue Jackson wanted more and more control in personnel selection. Ten days after becoming the de facto Raiders' GM, Jackson traded a first and second round pick for 32 year-old Carson Palmer. The trade was considered by many as a steal by Cincinnati, considering Palmer had vowed to never play for them again. His desire for personnel control was thought to be one of the reasons for his firing.
How much of Cincinnati's offensive success is due to their roster?
When you watch the Bengals play, you come away absolutely stunned by the amount of talent they've accumulated. They've done a great job investing in offensive playmakers and its paying off now. This sort of depth makes an offensive coordinator's job a lot easier. Hue Jackson won't have that same luxury in Tennessee.
Who's coming with him?
This is really a question for every single head coaching candidate. Part of being a head coach is surrounding yourself with great coordinators. In Oakland he had Al Saunders and Chuck Bresnahan. The hire I'm always most interested is who will be the man leading the other side of the ball. Jackson's specialty is offense. I'm less concerned with his OC hire than I am with his DC hire. Paul Kuharsky had mentioned on the radio last week that he knows Jim Schwartz. Schwartz has run primarily a 4-3 base defense his entire time in the NFL. Would Jackson consider looking at someone with 3-4 experience? Would he want to poach a defensive assistant from Cincinnati and go with a rookie defensive coordinator?
There's no question at this point that Hue Jackson is one the best head coach candidates out there. I think he's a perfect fit for the Tennessee Titans and Marcus Mariota. Every coach is going to come with a few question marks, and I think Jackson's are less concerning than others.
Hue Jackson will have a strong vision for his team and isn't afraid to make that vision happen. He's worked hard to earn this opportunity. Some smart team is going to give him a second chance.